Generally, a short week of work between games is frowned upon by all. The opposite is true for the occasional eight-day workweek, as would be the case between a Sunday and Monday Night game. Coaches prefer to have the extra time to dissect their next opponent; players love an extra day to rest weary bodies. Really, only the fan complains; though the unusually long wait between contests is offset by the national exposure their team receives (especially important to the out-of-area supporter, at least those without NFL Sunday Ticket, or a good sports bar, at their disposal).
The Steelers find themselves approaching just such an extended workweek. The team closes out the 2002 preseason against the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday Night and will have eleven days to rest, practice, and prepare before kicking off the season in New England on September 9th. Knowing that his team will be facing a significant lay-off between the Minnesota game and the season opener, head coach Bill Cowher has declared that, contrary to his previous practice, the Steelers starters will play nearly a half against the Vikings.
They need it.
Honestly, there has been little to be excited about this preseason beyond a couple of back-up quarterbacks deftly flinging passes around almost at will. The offensive line has been highly suspect. The running game nonexistent. Even the defense, which certainly has had its moments, has looked equally atrocious at times. Granted, this is the preseason, and many of those same players blowing assignments and leads alike throughout August will be unemployed come September. Fifteen of the players who were on the roster just a week ago are ex-Steelers as of yesterday. Fifteen more will get cut before Labor Day.
No one expected much of those guys (at least no one with any sense); most were lesser undrafted free agents on a team that had few openings and subsequently little luck in luring any level of quality, post-draft. In fact, entering Thursday night's game few roster positions are still in question, with only the final spots at defensive end, defensive back, and maybe tight end left undecided. Wide receiver would seem to have been settled last week versus Detroit, at least until Troy Edwards' knee injury. And that's about it.
There are certainly more pressing questions to be answered with regard to the starting units. How well will starting QB Kordell Stewart perform with the first team offense, having played but one quarter of football this summer? Back-ups Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch have produced admirably the last couple of weeks, leading some to question whether Stewart is indeed the best option on the depth chart. It behooves Kordell to guide this team to points early and often Thursday night, rather than have those doubts linger into the season opener.
None of the Steelers impressive stable of running backs has done much of anything this preseason. RBs Jerome Bettis, Amos Zereoue, and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala have rushed for a combined 46, 21, and 33 yards in games against the Jets, Redskins, and Lions, respectively. Part, if not most, of that is due to the unbelievably poor run blocking by an out-of-sync offensive line considered among the best in the league. Oliver Ross has been shuffled between left tackle and right guard and has struggled to find consistency. Rookie Kendall Simmons would appear to be the best option at RG, but has been bullied in consecutive weeks by the Redskins' Big Daddy Wilkinson and the Lions' Luther Ellis.
Both units need to find themselves versus the Vikings. Despite Cowher's proclamation that he will not force the issue with the running game this season, the Steelers must be able to run the ball on New England -- a team that favors the same physical, ball-control approach as the Steelers -- in the opener. That starts on Thursday night.
And so does the wait. Man, is eleven days ever an eternity.----------
On a personal note, the Steelers' Monday Night Football season opener will kickoff an emotional trifecta for yours truly. I, like so many of my fellow fans, have followed this team's every move (more so this offseason than in previous years, thanks to my involvement with this website) since that fateful January day at Heinz Field, and have looked to this AFCC rematch with great anticipation since the 2002 NFL schedule was announced. On Tuesday, September 10th, my second child, Lance Christian will celebrate his first birthday -- a birthday that seemed very much in jeopardy in the hours following his birth, as planes fell from the sky mere miles from our home. On Wednesday, a nation will mourn, many of them our neighbors. Perspective aside, a Steelers win would be oh so sweet.
I'd like to publicly thank TheInsiders' Jim Wexell for his support last September, keeping my focus on the joy of Lance's arrival rather than the guilt and grief that attempted to replace it.
Jim, you are a true friend, brother. Thank you.